The Marlin Hotel's dimly lit lobby is quieter than usual. A tall, bearded man wearing a checked paperboy cap points to a raggedy basketball jersey hanging on an easel; its bottom is tattered, the seams are busted, and the bright red color has faded to gray-maroon. It appears to have been used every day for years and then buried deep in a dresser, forgotten.
"Look over there. That's Raw's official Rock Steady jersey back in 1982!" says Brimstone (real name Seth Schere), a local hip-hop artist. "And over there are all of the Hoodstock flyers and Raw's album covers."
Then there's the slew of framed artwork stationed in a corner of the lobby. One photo stands out: a closeup of six front teeth covered by a gold grill inscribed with "DJ" on top and "Raw" on bottom. It's dated 1996, when grills were used for barbecues, not as a fashion statement.
Brimstone advises that this and several other "artifacts" on display this night will be shown in the Miami Hip-Hop Museum, which he and several other local hip-hop community members hope to open in the next two or three years. "It was an idea that I had for years, and since Raw's release, he's been giving me all these pieces of history. I was like, now I really have to make it happen!"
Ah, yes. Raw's release. Not only is this June 23 party a hip-hop induction ceremony sponsored by the Zulu Nation, Miami Chapter, but also it's a welcome-back fete for Raul Medina Jr., better known as DJ Raw.
After serving 10 years for spearheading a multimillion-dollar cocaine trafficking ring, Raw was released this past April. Now 43 years old, he is known in some parts as a Wynwood drug kingpin, but also, and more important, as founder of Hoodstock, the all-day free hip-hop festival, held annually from 1994 to 1996 at Roberto Clemente Park, that remains the most influential hip-hop event to take place in the history of Miami. Promoting a mission of "peace in the hood," Hoodstock attracted more than 10,000 attendees and showcased some of today's biggest hip-hop artists — Fat Joe, DMX, Noriega — when they were merely startups.
Suddenly, Kayela Flemming, a blue-eyed, dreadlocked 38-year-old Caribbean beauty, emerges from behind the lobby bar, looking peeved. "I can't believe it! They shut the bar down," screams Raw's publicist and longtime friend. "The City of Miami Beach just came in here like an hour ago, saying we didn't have the proper papers. Unbelievable!" Her frustration mounts with every sentence. "Some people just don't want to see Hoodstock go down. They see that Raw's out and the supposed powers that be are scared 'cause things are gonna start changing!" She takes a deep breath. "But there's drinks up in Raw's room if you want!"
A few minutes later, Room 219 is clearly a fire hazard. Sardined inside are chain-smoking, would-be rappers and over-the-top could-be MILFs, all downing plastic cups filled with gin and rum. As the new DJ Khaled chart-topper, "We Taking Over," blares from the surround-sound entertainment system, Raw lounges next to an air-conditioning unit with several look-alike members of The Sopranos' DiMeo crime family, all in classic Italian mob regalia, cigars in hand. Bedecked in a navy blue zoot suit, the handsome five-foot-six-inch medium-build Nuyorican pats his forehead dry with a silk handkerchief.
"This was a long time coming," Raw notes, his uniquely deep voice reverberating. "I'm so overwhelmed right now, seeing all my brothers in this room together at last.... It's been 10 long years.... Sorry, Khaled, but 'We Taking Over' now!"
Nods and cheers follow.
Omar Islam, founder of the Florida chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation (an international hip-hop organization) and the night's main presenter, is clearly touched. "This man right here," he grabs Raw's shoulders, "he's made what Miami is today! Look right now — South Beach alone, every club you hear is hip-hop. Back then there was no hip-hop here! Raw was the first to bring real hip-hop to Miami!"
Raul Medina was born December 7, 1963, at Benjamin Franklin Hospital in the Bronx. The youngest of seven children, Medina was raised by his single mom, a school counselor, in the birthplace of hip-hop, the South Bronx.
"When I was growing up, hip-hop wasn't even named hip-hop," Raw recalls. "You had Bam, KRS-One, Kurtis Blow — I grew up with these guys." An avid dancer at the time, Raw reminisces about his break-dancing days at a nightclub where historical b-boy showdowns took place: "My crew — TBB (The Bronx Boys) — and Rockwell used to battle Rock Steady at this place called Sunken Treasure way back when."
While his cousin, Buck 4, became a stronghold member in the famed Rock Steady Crew, Raw took his footwork to the streets. "All my brothers and sisters went to college, and me, on the other hand, ran amok. I felt at that time in my life, I didn't need school."
His education was built around hustlers and drug dealers, particularly a boyfriend of his mom's who was part of the notorious drug-dealing gang the Homicide Brothers. "It was like a family trade," recalls Raw. "My mom's boyfriend had the streets so hot that he couldn't stand out on the corner, and me being the shorty, the tough guy, I would stand [there] selling dope for him."
Raw recalls his first bout of drug-dealing ingenuity. At seven years old, he bought model car toy sets and then sold the modified glue sticks with cocaine inside. "I had a whole closet with model cars, every model car you can think of, but no glue to put it together."
At age 11, Raw moved with his mother to Miami, settling near 20th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, an area polluted with violence, prostitution, and drugs. "Man, the only high-rise back then was the FPL Building. There was nothing downtown. Biscayne was a shithole back then."
He and his mom moved around quite a bit. "We were like modern-day gypsies," he says. They eventually settled in Wynwood in 1984. During his teens, he tried vocational school for auto mechanics but soon discovered he could earn more money selling weed to classmates. Raw recalls banking $100 a week — not bad for a 16-year-old. He soon dropped out of school and began hustling full-time.
But, Raw declares, his real passion was hip-hop. "When I moved down here, people was like, 'What's hip-hop?' Back then it was all bass," he says, referring to the style of music popularized by 2 Live Crew. "That music was fun, you know, girls shaking their asses, but me being a b-boy, I just couldn't get down with that sound. There was none of that New York hip-hop until guys like us ... brought it."
Peter Price couldn't agree more. Also known as NME (pronounced enemy), his graffiti handle, Price is a longtime friend of Raw's and business director of Hoodstock. Price was 11 years old when his family moved to South Florida in 1983. "Coming from Queens to Miami, kids would make fun of me, how I dressed, spoke. I would break dance and they all looked at me crazy."
Now 35 years old, the soft-spoken Haitian with a penchant for storytelling considers Raw a father figure. He met Raw at the funeral of a 15-year-old named Dustin, who was shot dead after an altercation over a girl. Several years beforehand, Price had started KOP — Knock Out Posse — as an after-school football team. It became an after-school gang, which Raw joined.
As the group's eldest member, Raw persuaded KOP members to try music. "We all loved hip-hop," recalls Price. "Raw saw that some of us had talent, and him, being the entrepreneur, decided to make KOP a hip-hop music group."
Were other band members aware of Raw's side job as a drug dealer? "We all knew that he was selling, but back then, who wasn't?" says Kurage, a tall, lanky Haitian whose real name is Ettienne Thomas.
Kurage is referring to the mid-Eighties, when one word described Miami's illegal narcotics business: simple — simple to get, simple to sell, and simple to make a killer fortune. By the late Eighties, Raw was deep into the trade. No longer was it dime bags of weed. He was selling and trafficking kilos of cocaine by the dozen. "I used to work for an import/export company out of the Port of Miami. The company went bankrupt because I sold so much dope to the president that it folded up," remembers Raw. "One day I went into his office to pick up my check. My check ain't ready, my dope money ain't ready, so I'm like, 'What we gonna do about this?' So he offers me the title to the warehouse and a 24-wheeler. So I come to Wynwood with this big old truck and now we gotta pull off a scam, we gotta fool the cops. We got this big truck ... so I buy everybody [in KOP] green suits and now we're landscapers!" says Raw, laughing. "Now we pushing dope in lawnmowers, you know, serving guys on the corner while pretending to cut grass."
Price remembers his short stint in lawn care. "It was crazy. People be watching us trying to trim hedges, and we not knowing what the hell we're doing."
In 1991, Raw used some of the proceeds to open DJ Raw Records and Tapes at NW Seventh Avenue and 49th Street. The store carried just about anything hip-hop related (music, magazines, videos). During the same year, Raw started DJ Raw Studios after miraculously "discovering" a slew of DJ equipment. "Sean, one of the KOP members, calls me up at 4:00 a.m. and is like, 'Raw, bring the truck and bring the boys!' So I'm thinking, Man, this better be good! So I'm going down Second Avenue around Flagler, and there was some jam that was ending, people packing up, and I see all this equipment — video cameras, crates filled with records — just sitting outside.... So I quickly bring the truck, load up, and get out. I heard some old lady screaming that she's gonna call the cops, [so I] crunched a few cars in the [getaway]."
Then one day, while messing around with the stolen equipment, Price picked up a microphone and began to rap. The rhymes weren't world-changing, but Raw came up with a plan. It was simple: Get more equipment! He bought high-end recording gear ("Half I didn't even know what it was for!") and then a trailer to house his musical laboratory. He conveniently parked it behind his record store, which became a meeting place for up-and-coming talent.
Carlos Miranda, a 28-year-old Cuban hipster who sells pricey Swedish furniture in the Design District, recalls the hip-hop landmark. "It was like a hip-hop information hub," he explains. "There were flyers for upcoming parties, radio shows, Zulu Nation meetings.... Plus you'd find all the newest joints coming out of New York back then. I bought my first Wu-Tang Clan album there, on cassette."
Among the latest hip-hop records was DJ Raw and the KO Posse's first release, Lunatic State of Mind, a grimy, bass-driven hip-hop album filled with lyrics of the everyday ghetto struggle: hustling, violence, and the all-too-familiar police brutality.
The album was released on Raw Records in 1992. One venue for Raw's music in fact belonged to him: the legendary WJHH-FM (91.7) ("We're Just Hip-Hop"), a pirate radio station with a 50-foot antenna. "We had it inside a school bus," explains Raw, "and called it the 'Old Skool Bus.' A buddy owed me some bread and he ran a garage; he told me I could have anything I wanted."
From 1994 to 1997 was the golden era of pirate radio in Miami. "I had to blow out a couple transformers to get it right," Raw remembers. "But eventually everything worked out of the bus and we were always on the move."
Once Raw even parked his WJHH bus right in front of WEDR-FM (99 Jamz), which back then wasn't known by its contemporary title of "South Florida's Only Station for Hip-Hop and R&B." There he took over the station's channel feed for an hour, playing everything from De La Soul to NWA.
"They started it," Raw fervently declares. "They said something on the air that was like, all guys that ran underground radio stations were drug dealers and thugs!"
Well, wasn't it true?
Raw pauses. "Yeah, but I didn't want anyone else to know about that!"
In fact he admits to using WJHH to advertise the price for a kilo of cocaine. "It was like a cell phone back then. We'd reach right into your car and we'd scream on the mike: 'Five seventy-five, suckers!' which stood for how much the price was for a stack for that day," he explains.
The afternoon sun is brutal. An ice-cream truck sings through the neighborhood as four teenage boys pound their Nikes on the sweltering basketball court. Then, when a break is called, 15-year-old Oscar, his lean body lost in an oversize G-Unit T-shirt soaked in sweat, takes a swig of water and starts to rap, holding his Zephyrhills bottle as a microphone:
Wynwood fo' life, where true hustlas be hustlin',
We in da hood tonight, making somethin' outta nothin',
Wynwood, nigga, we in da hood, nigga!
One of the boys, sporting an Afro the size of the basketball, shouts, "Your rhymes are wack, just like your free throws!"
Oscar responds with a middle finger. Asked about his lyrics, he shrugs and says, "We always call this place Wynhood — this is the hood right here."
The boy has heard about Hoodstock from older relatives. "My cousin went one year and saw all these people, like Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Ice-T.... Oh and he met his baby mama there too." Oscar then pauses and sheepishly asks, "Yo, if Hoodstock is coming back, you think I can get up onstage and spit?"
On October 13, 1994 — Columbus Day weekend — Roberto Clemente Park was filled with live music, dance, and art. Approximately 1000 people, from teenagers to grandparents, were in attendance. For admission, concertgoers were asked to bring cans of food, which would be donated to a local food bank.
Rudi Goblen, founder of the internationally renowned break-dancing crew the Flipside Kingz, was 15 years old at the time. "I brought like three cans of black beans and — bam — I was in!"
It wasn't easy to stage Hoodstock. Wynwood back then was a predominantly Puerto Rican, low-income neighborhood between Overtown and Little Haiti. "Gang-banging, violence, drugs — it was not a place to be after dark," recalls Raw. "The city was like, 'Go ahead, let's see if you can pull it off.' It was like they were testing us, just waiting to see some shit go down."
Raw knew he couldn't do it alone, so he turned to Omar Islam for help. The toughly built, five-foot-nine-inch fortysomething-year-old Colombian was a founder of Zulu Nation, Florida Chapter. He had met Raw in 1992 at a party he threw called Hip-Hop Delight.
"The saying 'Each one, teach one,' that's hip-hop," Islam states. "It shows the ghetto youths that there are different avenues in life besides selling dope on the corner. Hip-hop was never about bling this and bitch that; that's what corporate America created. Hip-hop is an outlet and a guide to living a good and respectable life. And that's what Hoodstock promoted — hip-hop can change the world."
Kurage was in charge of Hoodstock's entertainment. "We had no idea what we were doing," he remembers. "Raw just wanted to throw a free jam in Wynwood!" The all-day event showcased 26 local talents and featured live graffiti painting, break dancing, and several hourlong seminars on the music business.
Mostly Wynwood residents attended that first year, and not one altercation broke out. Even Miami Police Lt. Mario Garcia was quoted as saying "It was quiet; not one problem."
Raw was inspired to make Hoodstock a longtime annual event, but the '95 edition brought him into conflict with the organizers of a competing conference, How Can I Be Down?, which was held around the same time. The Down conference took place at the glamorous Shore Club on South Beach, where registrants paid up to $500 to hobnob with Puff Daddy and Mase. Ten miles west, Hoodstock was a free outdoor shindig held in the ghetto.
Ironically, How Can I Be Down? was marred by violence, shootings, and street brawls, while Hoodstock was peaceful. While the attendees of the Down conference sipped mojitos by the pool, Hoodstock served no alcohol, even rejecting sponsorship deals with Budweiser and Presidente beer. "We had a different agenda than Peter Thomas [founder of How Can I Be Down?]. We did Hoodstock for the youth, and they were more for the adults," recalls Price, who did marketing. "We weren't asking for [trouble], 'cause, quite frankly, it was two different festivals. Yet ultimately, if it was a competition, Hoodstock won."
Hoodstock and How Can I Be Down? organizers soon settled their differences, and in 1996 the two conferences worked together on Columbus Day weekend. That year more than 10,000 people from as far away as Japan attended. The Miami Herald ran a story about Raw and his KOP members titled "Hip-Hop Acts Give Peace a Chance." And Miami New Times made him a Personal Best in the "Best of Miami" issue.
Raw says he had hoped to use Hoodstock's success to go straight. "We was making dope money to eventually get out of the ghetto, to become legit, you know." By then he was a father of three (one biological son and two legally adopted children from his marriage to Maria Casañas, a.k.a. Yaggi).
"He'd always tell me to do good in school," recalls Raw's son Raul Jr., a.k.a. Lil' Raw. "He was strict when it came to that kinda stuff."
In 1996, Raw even sponsored the Northwest Miami Boys and Girls Clubs basketball team, the Falcons, and coached a baseball team for the Miami Shores Optimist Club.
A 29-year-old Wynwood resident who goes by the nickname Felony says he considered Raw a Robin Hood of the neighborhood. "He would, like, come through one day with go-carts and have all the kids drive them around the block," he says. "He had an open-door policy to his crib. Kids would come in and play pool, fix themselves something to eat — it was like we lived there!"
Felony recalls Raw telling kids to stay in school, finish homework, and stay away from drugs and violence. "He was like our dad. If you needed anything, Raw would get it for you, no questions asked — clothes, food, rent money, anything. If he saw the local ice-cream truck come around, he'd give him $100 so the kids could go wild on ice cream."
Another Wynwood local, 33-year-old Pastor Sergio, grew up and still resides in a quaint yellow fenced-in two-bedroom home across from Roberto Clemente Park. His life before he became a man of faith included drugs and violence. Raw, Sergio says, "brought Hoodstock to Wynwood, and that's a beautiful thing. There needs to be more positive events like that in every hood."
Asked if he found Raw the drug dealer at odds with Raw the community activist, Pastor Sergio responds, "Back then, everyone was involved in drugs somehow.... Even the cops here in Wynwood sold drugs! The entire system was corrupt."
But one middle-age Wynwood man, who wishes to remain anonymous, shakes his head in dismay. Sitting on a beat-up lawn chair in his front yard, he says, "Drug dealers are scumbags. I don't care what good things you do for the community; you're putting drugs on the streets where kids can get a hold of them."
Raw contends he has always told kids to stay away from drugs. "I could've easily took all my dope money and bought a mansion on Star Island or driven a fancy car, but I didn't. All my money I put into hip-hop and to educating the shorties that there's a way out. When the cops came and took me, I was chilling in a modest single-family home. I was never proud of the shit that I did, but, man, someone was gonna do it."
On September 6, 1997, the Miami Herald ran a story about Hoodstock with the headline "Something Positive in the 'Hood." The next week, Raw was in a jail cell.
In a small apartment in Hialeah Gardens, Omar Islam sets up his mom's VCR. As he closes the blinds, he says, "Excuse the quality. It's been dubbed a lot."
Amid scratches and poor sound, a coiffed WSVN-TV (Channel 7) newscaster booms, "A popular DJ who served as a role model for kids in Wynwood was arrested today...."
The camera pans across 26 cuffed felons lined up in front of the Miami Police Station. Most are in boxers from the early-morning raid. Some cover their faces.
Then Raw, looking rather stoic and wearing no shirt, enters the lobby. Flash bulbs click.
"Why'd you do it?" asks a reporter.
"I guess it was just to bring something positive to the area of Wynwood," he says, his voice cracking.
"How so? How'd you bring something positive to the neighborhood?"
"I brought Hoodstock for world peace that gathered more than 10,000 heads — they come from all over the world.... My neighborhood has a lot of negativity and ..."
"What about the drugs? You were bringing drugs as well," she interrupts.
"Yes, I was bringing drugs in, but...."
Raw, Price, and Kurage were arrested September 16, 1997, after a yearlong investigation that included wiretaps, surveillance, and informants. The three were caught up in an operation DEA agents called "Wind-Jammer." The early-morning raid swept through Raw's North Miami home, where police found 16 kilograms of cocaine, 523 marijuana plants, $35,000 in cash, eight handguns, and two assault-style rifles.
Although many of the others arrested that day had closer ties to Colombian drug cartels, everyone's attention focused on one person. Newspaper headlines the following days read like a movie: "Idolized Inner City DJ Accused of Drug, Thug Life," "The Rise and Fall of a Legend in the Hood," "Good Guy Gone Bad or Great Pretender," and "Happening in the Hood Dashes Dade's Hip Hop Dreams."
Raw was initially charged with cocaine trafficking, conspiring to traffic cocaine, and selling the drug in a school zone. Undercover agents said they had purchased approximately 254 grams on three occasions at Raw's house on 115th Street, just a few blocks from Lakeview Elementary School.
He was held on $700,000 bond.
Over the next two years, Raw gave a series of depositions that led to multiple charges. He says he confessed everything because he knew the other 25 arrested would blame him. Raw hired private defense attorney Thomas Payne (who declined to comment for this story); he later settled for a public defender because he was low on cash and "didn't trust that guy [Payne]."
Finally, on September 9, 1999, he pleaded guilty before Judge Mark King Leban to racketeering and cocaine trafficking. The charges for selling coke in a school zone were dropped.
Kurage and Price both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three years in state prison. Raw got 10 years. "I guess I felt relieved," he says about his sentencing. "I knew I had to go to jail to set an example to the kids that crime does not pay."
Price has his own idea about why Raw confessed. "He did it for me and Kurage so we would get a lesser sentence and so we wouldn't have to rat him out. He took the fall."
Raw's first four years were the most difficult. "When I went to prison, I was an illiterate — I could barely read and write. So I had to start with the basics, got my GED, and during my sentence, I took part in HIV prevention training and got seven certifications from the Florida Department of Health. I even created an HIV program for the Florida Department of Corrections."
Indeed records show Raw was an exemplary inmate. He received several awards for good behavior. With the help of a few guards, who wrote letters of recommendation, he was sent to a lesser-security correctional facility.
Raw recalls that while he was in prison, he ran into a young man named Chinito, who was serving two years for aggravated assault and battery. Now only 21, Chinito looks older than his years, and his quiet presence is often mistaken for defensiveness. "I used to fight a lot," he says. "I would get into a lot of trouble, drugs, violence. I was a bad kid."
Chinito says of Raw: "He was like my older brother. He always kept me focused. He saw I liked hip-hop and made me redirect my energy from fighting other inmates to getting in the studio." Since his release almost a year ago, Chinito has been working diligently to finish his first album. "If I hadn't met him, I don't know what would have happened.... I'd still be in prison, I guess."
In 2004, Raw received a letter from an up-and-coming Miami rapper named Michael Garcia, or as his fans know him, simply Garcia. "I needed to write a letter to Raw on how he really inspired me to pursue my dreams of being an artist," explains Garcia. Now a successful hip-hop artist who has worked with Pitbull, Rick Ross, and DJ Khaled, Garcia says he first performed onstage at Hoodstock. As he stood in front of the stage, rapper Fat Joe asked if anyone wanted to get on the microphone; then he invited 16-year-old Garcia up. "It was the greatest feeling, being in front of all those people. Hoodstock literally changed my life," Garcia says. "We need Hoodstock back 'cause there's probably some kid like me back in the day who doesn't have that outlet. Man, it just sucks!"
Raw recounts the day, his 40th birthday, when he got the letter. "Yo, that letter really saved me," he says as he solemnly nods his head, "because, man, I was so depressed, you know. It's my birthday and I can't be with my family and kids, and just everything seemed hopeless until I got that letter, and it really, how can I say, lit a fire up my ass."
So on a cool, sunny day in March, Raw left Sumter Correctional Institution, near Orlando, and began planning a new Hoodstock. "Since being out, it's just been nonstop. You get a different outlook being in jail for that long, man. You can't waste no time. Hoodstock is coming back because Miami needs it."
The bass is booming. It's vibrating through the floor. The neatly hung mirrors at Area 61 recording studios in Miami Gardens are in danger of crashing down. It's 9:30 on a July Thursday night, and horns blare loudly as if to announce a king's arrival. "Bring the track back; bring it back!" Orion, a local MC, yells as he prepares to freestyle over the newly minted beats.
As 20 MCs crowd around in a circle, all freestyling over the beat, Raw stands back and watches in amazement. "When did these kids get so good?" he wonders. Everyone in the room is there to help create the official Hoodstock 2007 theme song. One by one, each lays down a couple of verses to honor DJ Raw.
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The vibe is a mix of triumph and warfare, as the MCs make rhymes foretelling a change ahead for hip-hop and Miami.
Hoodstock 2007 is scheduled to take place the last week of December at — where else — Roberto Clemente Park. Kayela Flemming, part organizer, puts it this way: "Raw was sent here with a mission, and that's to resurrect Hoodstock. Raw is a man of his word, and he didn't do 10 years to see Hoodstock die."
Clocking barely four hours of sleep a night these days, Raw has a lot of catching up to do. "So much has changed since I've been gone — to Miami, to hip-hop. Man, sometimes I think, What would've happened if I didn't get caught? I mean, seeing dudes like Khaled blowing up, and this was the same cat that begged to play on our radio station back then...." He begins to drift despite the loud chants of MCs yelling "Hoodstock 2007!"
Then he smiles. "Hoodstock 2007 — it's for you, Miami. It was always for you. So get ready because I'm back, and I'm not going anywhere."